06 Dec 2021 | 09:22
The entire landscape of Major League Baseball is virtually guaranteed to change from one season to the next. The annual awards that were handed out over the course of this week are yet another example of that.
Just to pick one race, let’s go with the AL MVP competition. Just before the season, SportsBetting.com ranked the most likely candidates as Mike Trout of the Angels and Luis Robert of the White Sox. Based on what we saw in 2020 and, for Trout, over a multiyear period, the status of favorite for both made sense. Indeed, both played like MVPs while they were on the field, but injuries kept both players off the field so often that they were never factors in the race.
Meanwhile, eventual landslide AL winner Shohei Ohtani was tied for third in the futures market with the Yankees’ Aaron Judge. But the AL finalists in addition to Ohtani were further down the list, with Toronto’s Vladimir Guerrero Jr. coming in tied for eighth (at 20-1) and Blue Jays teammate Marcus Semien off the board entirely, so somewhere south of 100-1.
That’s just one award, but that dynamic repeats for all of them, no matter where you’re getting your odds. The reason is simple: Predicting the future is hard. It’s hard in life. Hard in sports. Hard when it comes to teams. It’s especially hard when it comes to players.
Let’s do it anyway. Here’s a very early stab at the 2022 MLB awards races. How early? So early, that you might even call it way too early.
My favorites: Bobby Witt Jr., Royals; Adley Rutschman, Orioles; Shane Baz, Rays
Witt and Rutschman are two of the consensus top prospects in the game. Both are on a trajectory for a 2022 debut after they played extremely well when they reached Triple-A last season. We don’t know how the current CBA negotiations are going to affect MLB service time as it relates to arbitration eligibility and free agency, so we don’t know if the Royals and Orioles are going to see any benefit in delaying the debuts of their top prospects.
Baz doesn’t carry that caveat because he debuted for the Rays in 2021, and he was dominant over his first three big league outings. He even earned a Game 2 start for Tampa Bay in its division series against the Red Sox. He figures to be a rotation fixture for the Rays going forward, and the Rookie of the Year formula is always an uncertain combination of opportunity and performance.
Early indications are that Witt seems like a no-brainer to break camp with the Royals next spring. There’s simply nothing left for him to prove in the minors, and the Royals are trying to win, so if Witt is part of their best configuration, they’ll want him out there as often as possible. Rutschman’s ETA is a little more unclear than that, and the Orioles are not yet pushing toward contention. It would be great to see a season-long battle between Witt and Rutschman, because it could be a memorable one.
We can’t forget about Seattle OF Julio Rodriguez, who just might be the best prospect of them all. He hit .347 with patience, power and speed across two levels for Mariners affiliates in 2021. He also starred for the Dominican Republic during the Tokyo Olympics. Still, Rodriguez doesn’t turn 21 until Dec. 29, and right now has reached only Double-A, where he played 46 games this past season. The Mariners will try to contend in 2022, but have decent outfield depth.
Rodriguez might well force his way onto Seattle’s opening day roster, but if not, then he’d start behind the favorites in what is shaping up as a tremendous AL rookie class. How tremendous? Among other top prospects who could play significant roles next season whom we haven’t even mentioned are Baltimore righty Grayson Rodriguez, Detroit hitting prospects Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene, and Kansas City catcher/slugger MJ Melendez.
Sleeper: Gabriel Moreno, Blue Jays
Moreno has rocketed up the prospect rankings by hitting everywhere he’s gone. Baseball America ranked Moreno as Toronto’s No. 8 prospect before last season and as the Jays’ second-best catching prospect behind Alejandro Kirk. By BA’s midseason rankings, Moreno held the No. 1 overall spot for the Jays. That’ll happen when you hit .367, get a smattering of Triple-A playing time at age 21 and keep on mashing during the Arizona Fall League. He lost development time to a thumb injury in 2021, and the Jays have Danny Jansen and Kirk as a nice combo behind the plate. Nevertheless, Moreno’s trajectory makes him a player to watch.
My pick: Witt. He’s the full package and should get a full season to show it.
My favorites: Hunter Greene, Reds; Joey Bart, Giants; Brennen Davis, Cubs
It’s much harder to identify classic Rookie of the Year candidates on the NL side, but that’s not to say front-runners won’t emerge. We’ve shied away from listing some likely 2022 rookies as favorites here because of injuries (Padres IF C.J. Abrams) or a lack of consistency (Cardinals IF Nolan Gorman and SP Matthew Liberatore). Any of those players could show up in spring training and become what Jonathan India was for the 2021 Reds.
Bart seems to have the inside edge on succeeding Buster Posey as the Giants’ everyday catcher. He maintains his rookie status despite having 35 big league games under his belt. Posey’s retirement opens up the door of opportunity for him.
Greene is more of a question mark in terms of spending most of next season at the big league level, even though the Reds appear to be in veteran-shedding mode. After missing all of 2019 due to Tommy John surgery, Greene spent 2020 at Cincinnati’s alternate training site, so 2021 was his first game action since 2018. The stuff was still there — Greene will be a darling of anyone dazzled by Statcast readings — but his results tailed off after he ascended to Triple-A. Throwing his name into this mix is a testament to his raw stuff.
Davis is a fast riser in the Cubs’ system after adding more power to his arsenal. The rebuilding Cubs might have everyday at-bats available for a young player of his ilk, though it seems likely he’ll begin 2022 in Triple-A.
Sleeper: Sixto Sanchez, Marlins
Sanchez could have plenty of company in the Marlins’ 2022 rookie class, joining fellow hurlers Max Meyer and Edward Cabrera, and possibly slugging outfielder JJ Bleday. Sanchez is coming off surgery to repair a small tear in his shoulder, and while current reports are that he’ll be good to go in 2022, we have to see that happen before we can truly believe it — any kind of shoulder issue has to be handled delicately. Still, if Sanchez is a full go, we’ve already seen his stuff play in the majors, with an 80-grade fastball (per Baseball America) that earned him two postseason starts in 2020.
Other sleeper candidates include a pair of Cincinnati prospects — SS Jose Barrero and SP Nick Lodolo — as well as suddenly overlooked Braves CF Cristian Pache. Phillies SS Bryson Stott has gotten a lot of recent attention and the Phils do need a long-term shortstop solution.
My pick: Bart. He might not have the most upside of the NL rookie class, but he should be a steady and frequent contributor in a key role for a contending team.
This race looks like it’ll be wide open, with former winners Chris Sale, Shane Bieber and Justin Verlander all in various post-injury stages, and Cole having come back to the pack a little bit after his up-and-down second half last season.
Giolito struggled with some inconsistency in 2021, but he has a history of overcoming those issues with his cerebral, self-aware approach to the game. Also, anyone who is a fixture in the White Sox’s rotation is a contender, so in a subhead to this section, you might as well list Lance Lynn, Dylan Cease and maybe even Michael Kopech. There aren’t many managers who value length from starters like Tony La Russa, and while that might not turn the heads of voters like it once did, it might hold some sway in a tight race.
With Berrios, we also have to mention teammate Robbie Ray, the 2021 AL winner who is a free agent, so it’s hard to say he’s a favorite in either league. Meanwhile, Berrios is an underrated pitcher who combines durability and consistency as well as anyone, and his peripheral numbers have ticked up to the point where it feels like he’s poised for a career season.
As for Cole, he has plenty to prove after his 2021 drop-off, but he is still, after all, Gerrit Cole.
Sleeper: Shohei Ohtani, Angels
Corbin Burnes’ Cy Young win shows that you don’t need to lead the league in innings to win the honor in today’s game. Ohtani has the potential to put up a top-five season just for his pitching alone, and as good as he was on the mound in 2021, there were still some unpolished edges to his game. More than anything, it just feels like if Ohtani sets his sights on building a case for this award and boosting the oft-criticized Angels rotation, he, perhaps more than any player in the game, can get there by sheer will.
My pick: Berrios. A (relatively) new team, a contract extension — things just seem to be coming together for Berrios as he gets into the prime of his career.
The 2021 season was great, as all full baseball seasons are, but it wasn’t as great as it could have been because of major injuries to some of the game’s best players. None of those injuries was as devastating as were the maladies that limited to deGrom to 92 innings. Still, since the start of the 2018 season, here are deGrom’s numbers per 162 games: 12-8, 1.94 ERA and 289 strikeouts.
There is at least some sentiment that Wheeler got jobbed in the 2021 balloting, and if he can repeat his performance in 2022, maybe he gets a closer look next time around. The key question for him is whether there will be a price to pay from his leap in innings from 71 in 2020 to 213 1/3.
I remained convinced that Buehler is going to put it all together some year, post enormous numbers and run away with a Cy Young Award. His numbers were awfully good in 2021, so if he improves on those, look out.
Sleeper: Jack Flaherty, Cardinals
We’ve seen Flaherty enjoy a prolonged stretch when he pitched at an elite level before. Last season, he wasn’t quite at that level, and injuries had something to do with it. He’s at the point in his career where he could become the next career-long Cardinal, or position himself for a major payday in free agency. Next season could be the one in which Flaherty establishes himself over a full season as the ace the Cardinals need.
My pick: DeGrom. There are a lot of ifs for most of the pitchers mentioned in this piece, because that’s the nature of forecasting pitching. For deGrom, there is only one if: If he makes 30 or so starts, he is the front-runner.
My favorites: Shohei Ohtani, Angels; Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays; Mike Trout, Angels
For Ohtani, the question has to be whether some minor fatigue develops with the fascination of just how marvelously unique his 2021 season was. He did fall off a bit toward the end of the season at the plate, and if the Angels manage him a little more carefully going forward, that might be enough to open the door for someone else.
That someone else could certainly be Guerrero, whose 2021 numbers (1.002 OPS) were good enough to get him AL MVP honors in many seasons. The sustainability of those numbers, or at least most of them, is made more likely by the fact that they were undergirded by real improvements in approach and plate discipline, the kind of things that are usually sticky. As a reality check, you also think back to the heights of Bryce Harper’s age-22 season (1.109 OPS) and what came next, and you wonder if some regression is almost inevitable.
As for Trout, the only number of his that has declined is games played. Unfortunately, that’s a big one. After missing a total of 16 games from 2013 to 2016, he has missed at least 22 in each full season since. Yet he remains a player for whom a 1.000 OPS is the expectation, not the upside. Literally: His career OPS is 1.002. If he plays a full season of at least 140-145 games, he’ll be part of the MVP conversation.
Sleeper: Wander Franco, Rays
Franco entered the big leagues with the burden of having been baseball’s top consensus prospect for multiple seasons. With expectations so high, a disappointing debut seemed almost like an inevitability. Indeed, other than homering in his first game, he did get off to a slow start — for all of 15 games, during which he hit .197. After that, he hit .314/.372/.500. He also put up a BABIP of .311, which is kind of low for a player with his contact and line-drive ability. In the minors, he was at .334. So his already-impressive numbers could have been even better.
Franco doesn’t turn 21 until spring training, so maybe we’re jumping the gun. We’ve never had a position player win an MVP award in his age-21 season. Still, Franco is someone who leaped from top prospect status to putting up a consecutive-game on-base streak in the majors that had him listed alongside Mickey Mantle on a daily basis. Special players do special things.
My pick: Trout. This seems like less of an obvious pick than years past, because the mounting injury problems have really started to take over Trout’s narrative. How could they not after a season in which he went down with a calf strain in the middle of May, and then missed the rest of the season? Still, when he did play, he showed zero degradation of his skills. And his skills remain the best in the game.
This is either a great list or a boring list. On one hand, the familiarity it conjures is a reflection of how many generational players there are in the senior circuit right now, and how many of them are either in their primes, or on the ascent. If you wanted to add Bryce Harper to that list, I wouldn’t argue with you. The only reason Ronald Acuna Jr. isn’t there is because we don’t know for sure when he’s coming back from his ACL tear, and we need to see if he has been in any way diminished by the injury.
Among the trio listed as favorites, Betts has the most to prove, though “prove” might not be an appropriate description. It’s simply that he is coming off a down season by his immense standards. He hit .264, matching his career low. The last time Betts hit that number, the following campaign he responded by hitting .346 with an OPS over 1.000 and posted an epic 10.7 bWAR.
Soto will be on the favorites list for the foreseeable future. It’s not just that he’s consistent. It’s that the level at which he produces that consistency is MVP-caliber. His mean expectation is just that high. Coming off his age-22 season, he has a career .981 OPS and has averaged 6.1 bWAR per 162 games. He showed us in the Home Run Derby what his raw power is. Now imagine Soto fully manifesting that raw power in games for a full season, going along with his best-in-the-game combination of strike zone judgment and plate discipline, and elite bat-to-ball skills. Excuse me while I clean up the drool from my keyboard.
And Tatis could hit 50 home runs and steal 40 bases as a shortstop. It’s an awfully exciting time in the National League.
Sleeper: Trea Turner. OK, Turner is a star player and not really the platonic ideal of a sleeper candidate, but I want to throw some attention his way. His power breakout in 2021 is a major development for a player who seems to have established himself as a .330-type hitter during this phase of his career and has some of baseball’s best speed skills. If he ends up moving back to shortstop full time to replace Corey Seager, he’ll have plenty of positional value as well. The competition in the NL is so fierce with elite talents that it is hard to imagine a real sleeper breaking through, so Turner is the best I can come up with.
My pick: Tatis. I see the Padres as having a big bounce-back year under Bob Melvin, not just because of the manager, but because of better injury luck. Tatis is going to produce, but he should put up his numbers in a more high-stakes context next year amid a three-team scrum with the Giants and Dodgers in the NL West. Soto is capable of putting up the kind of monster numbers to overcome that, but he will be handicapped to an extent by the fact that the Nationals aren’t likely to be very good.